The gatekeepers

What’s the difference between the Great Wall of China and voice mail?

One is a highly complex piece of engineering, designed to keep hordes of people out, and out of reach. The other is a large wall in China.

Voice mail. We love it because it lets us ignore calls we don’t want to take,

or prepare for calls we’d rather not take right now. We hate it because it also lets our prospects do the exact same thing – including ignoring calls from us!

Like all business tools, voice mail can be a double-edged sword. But the fact of the matter is, if you know how to manage it, you’ll never again have to blame voice mail for not closing enough business.

Just consider this all-too common end of quarter exchange:

Manager: “Why aren’t you going to hit quota this month?”

Sales person: “Because my stupid prospects won’t return my calls!” or “I keep leaving voice mail, but it isn’t my fault that they don’t call me back”, or (worst of all), “Well, I guess no news is goodnews!”

Sound familiar? Having prospects not return your calls is not an excuse for poor performance. As sales people, it’s our job to find a way to reach our prospects. This is what we get paid to do, and the better we do it, the better we get paid.


So if you’ve been blaming voice mail for poor sales performance, it may be time to try a new approach. This week, we focus on what you can do during a cold call to better navigate your way through voice mail, and into closing more business.

A shift in focus

Learning how to successfully manage voice mail first requires a shift in your focus about cold calling in general, as well as a fundamental change in your end goal.

A cold call is not the place to start a sales pitch. In fact, the most successful sales people don’t make the focus of a cold call getting sales, or even getting an appointment. Instead, they focus only on ways to start a conversation that will help their prospects reveal what they really want to do.

With this in mind, each time you pick up the phone to make a cold call, I encourage you to make this your one and only goal: To start a conversion with a decision maker who will open up and talk to me about their business needs and wants

To do this, you have to consider two voice mail fundamentals:

Never leave a voice mail for someone who doesn’t know you. To the prospect, you’re an anonymous sales person, and the chances of this stranger ever returning your call are between 1-2 per cent at best. The only time you should ever leave a voice mail for a new prospect is when you have been referred to them (more on that below).

Only use voice mail as a last resort. Too often I see sales reps giving up as soon as the voice mail kicks in, and either leaving a voice mail (bad) or simply hanging up (better but not great). The reality is, even if you’ve gotten someone’s voice mail, there are 2 or 3 other options you can exercise while still on that call.

When in doubt, hit zero

What do I mean by only using voice mail as a last resort?

Before leaving a voice mail message for someone who doesn’t know you, I believe you owe it to yourself to try everything you can to find them, or at least find out something about them.

For example, when you get someone’s voice mail, instead of leaving them a message, hit zero. You will likely get bounced to one of: a) reception, b) a personal or Executive assistant, or c) a co-worker in their department. If you’re prepared to ask them the right questions, all of these people can actually help you reach your prospect.

First, try asking them the following question:

I was hoping you could help me. I’m trying to reach Jane Smith, and her voice mail picked up. Do you happen to know if she’s in a meeting, or out for the entire day?

Depending on their response, you can then try one of the following three approaches:

Scenario One:

Them: She’s in a meeting.

You: Thanks for your help. Do you happen to know when she will be available? Then follow with, Maybe it’s best to call back then?

Scenario Two:

Them: She’s away today.

You:Thanks for your help. Do you know if she will be back tomorrow?

Scenario Three:

If you speak to your prospect’s personal assistant, ask if it’s better to schedule a call in advance, and then have them set an appointment for you for 15 minutes or less of their time. Make sure to mark this date and time in your calendar, and whatever else happens that day, don’t forget to actually make the call. (Sounds obvious, I know, but the majority of sales people fail to live up to this promise).

If you have received a referral to your prospect, however, leaving a voice mail is okay, because there has already been a common bond created between you and your prospect. This bond is a relationship, and this relationship is the reason a prospect will want to call you back.

Remember, there are two types of referrals: 1) from someone inside the company, like their boss or a colleague such as “John the VP of Marketing asked that I call you;” and 2) from someone outside the company, such as a mutual friend, partner or supplier. Either of these referrals will create a strong enough relationship to compel a prospect to call you back.

Three steps to voice mail success

If you do reach the point of leaving a voice mail, try this three-step process to dramatically increase your chances of hearing back from your prospect, and obtaining a positive response:

The first call.

Jane, this is Colleen Francis from Engage. We haven’t yet had the chance to meet, but I was talking to (Paul Smith in Marketing or Deb Young at ABC Corporation) yesterday, and he/she asked that I call you. Sorry I missed you today, but I’ll try to reach you again on DATE and TIME.

HINT: Make sure your tone is soft, non-threatening and friendly – you don’t want to sound like a radio ad for a furniture liquidator. Plus, it’s critical that you do call back exactly on the date and time that you say.

The follow-up.

Hi Jane, this is Colleen Francis from Engage. I promised to call you back today, and I’m sorry we missed each other. As I mentioned before, (person at company or department ABC) was really hoping that we would be able to connect. I’ll try you again on DATE and TIME.

Again, it’s critical that you call back exactly when you said you would. Anything else would result in your being less than honest, and risk losing your prospect’s confidence.

One last try at bat.

Hi Jane, this is Colleen at Engage Selling calling, because I promised to reach you today. I noticed that you are often away from your desk and I suspect it’s because you’re either swamped at work, I’ve been wrong at guessing the times you might be available – or (humorous tone) you just really don’t want to talk to me! Whatever the reason, if you wouldn’t mind letting me know how to proceed, that would be great. I promised (Paul) I would be in touch with you, and get back to him on our conversation.

This three-step approach works because it’s non-threatening,honest and friendly – attributes all sales people should develop if they want to be successful. It also works because it means you have shifted your focus from trying to make a sale, to trying to start a conversation. In doing so, you give your prospect the expectation that you can be trusted to keep your word, and you begin to build the rapport that is so imperative to winning new business.

There is no magic bullet. But since I started using this approach, I’m happy to report that our office receives a 95 per cent call back rate. By adopting this technique, before you know it, voice mail can switch from being your impenetrable Great Wall, to being just one more signpost on your road to success.

Be sure to read next month’s issue for Part II of The Gatekeepers: The Human Factor!

Colleen Francis is a certified sales professionaladvisor. You can catch her on the Web at

Would you recommend this article?


Thanks for taking the time to let us know what you think of this article!
We'd love to hear your opinion about this or any other story you read in our publication.

Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

Featured Download

Related Tech News

Get ITBusiness Delivered

Our experienced team of journalists brings you engaging content targeted to IT professionals and line-of-business executives delivered directly to your inbox.